Poetry: words of wisdom from a British Poet Laureate – part 2

As we saw last week, Mark Niel is a well-established British poet who recently won the accolade of “Poet Laureate” for England’s most recent, and (in my opinion) most progressive new city – Milton Keynes. Although “Poet Laureate” status is awarded quite widely in other countries in the UK it’s quite a rare status, so we must be conscious of just how much of an expert Mark is. We’re fortunate, therefore, to share his advice and views in this two-part interview…


How many “rules” are there in writing poetry that an amateur poet should know and follow?

 

That depends on the type of poet you want to be. There are lots of different forms of poetry you can write: sonnets, sestinas, villanelles etc., which have rules about the number of lines, syllables and where rhymes fall etc. There’s also free verse which has no rules. If anyone is looking for an excellent overall guide, I can recommend Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled”.

How important is the conventional “grammar” of poetry nowadays?

As you tell from my previous answer, my personal view is not at all. I’d rather read an idiosyncratic poem that conveys some thought or feeling rather than a technically perfect poem that doesn’t say anything new. Most of my exposure has been to performance poetry where how the poem is presented to the audience counts for as much as the quality of writing. Some of the most exhilarating nights have been down to the originality.

In your view, what makes a “good” poem?

It has to engage me either in the beauty and simplicity of the language, or the originality of the imagery. It could carry emotional weight or just be witty. Above all, it has to show an original thought either in its theme or in the way it’s expressed. I like to get to the end of the poem and find a delicious twist. If I want to immediately read it again, I know it’s a good poem.

What forms of poetry would you say are most appropriate for beginners to write?

Whatever form interests or inspires you most. It’s easier to start with something that engages your attention rather than force a certain form out as an exercise (thought poetry will require a certain discipline from time to time.) If you are starting out and want a starting point that is based in classic forms, you can learn lot from writing iambic pentameter (lines composed of five sets of double beats with the accent stressed on the second of the beats)

What do you think an individual gains from writing poetry – even if it isn’t very “good?”

I think it is always positive to play with words and helps you love language more. A simple verse can express deep emotions and mean so much to someone. It can help you distill a central idea into very few words.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to try writing poetry for the first time?

Don’t worry about form; whether it’s good or not. Write for the pleasure of capturing a thought in beautiful words

What are your key tips for successful poetry writing?

 

  1. Read poetry. See what you like and how it speaks to you.
  2. Go to poetry readings and see the range of poetry that is out there.
  3. Write about subjects that stirs your passion or interest or anger etc.
  4. Look for courses or writing groups. It helps to meet with people who share your interests and it can help in knowing you have to bring something next week.
  5. Always have a pen and notebook with you. You never know when inspiration will strike.
  6. Writing is re-writing. Be prepared to redraft, shape and mould as necessary.
  7. Finally, it’s your poem. When it says what you intend, in the way you want to say it, don’t tinker with it anymore. You may sometimes get the “it would be better if…” comment from a well-meaning member of the audience. Have an open mind to see if the advice helps you say things better. Also be prepared to politely ignore it if it doesn’t.

Would you be prepared to answer readers’ questions for us about writing poetry?

 

I’d be happy to.

Mark, thank you so much! And let’s have your comments and questions here please…

Follow Mark on his website, “A Kick In The Arts” or on his blog, “Pawhouseboy

Some help to make you  write poetically:

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

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